Marco Polo returns to Venice

Sometime around 1292 (1290 according to Otagi), a Mongol princess was to be sent to Persia to become the consort of Arghun Khan, and the Polos offered to accompany her.

Marco wrote that Kublai had been unwilling to let them go but finally granted permission. They were eager to leave, in part, because Kublai was nearly 80, and his death (and the consequent change in regime) might have been dangerous for a small group of isolated foreigners. Naturally, they also longed to see their native Venice and their families again.

The princess, with some 600 courtiers and sailors, and the Polos boarded 14 ships, which left the port of Quanzhou (“Zaiton”) and sailed southward. The fleet stopped briefly at Champa (“Ciamba,” modern Vietnam) as well as a number of islands and the Malay Peninsula before settling for five months on the island of Sumatra (“Lesser Giaua”) to avoid monsoon storms. There Polo was much impressed by the fact that the North Star appeared to have dipped below the horizon. The fleet then passed near the Nicobar Islands (“Necuveran”), touched land again in Sri Lanka, or Ceylon (“Seilan”), followed the west coast of India and the southern reaches of Persia, and finally anchored at Hormuz. The expedition then proceeded to Khorasan, handing over the princess not to Arghun, who had died, but to his son Maḥmūd Ghāzān.

The Polos eventually departed for Europe, but their movements at this point are unclear; possibly they stayed for a few months in Tabriz. Unfortunately, as soon as they left the Mongol dominions and set foot in a Christian country, at Trebizond in what is now Turkey, they were robbed of most of their hard-won earnings. After further delays, they reached Constantinople and finally Venice (1295). The story of their dramatic recognition by relatives and neighbours who had thought them long since dead is a part of Polo lore that is well known.

The Polos stayed in Khan's court for 17 years, acquiring great wealth in jewels and gold. They were anxious to be on the move since they feared that if Kublai - now in his late seventies - were to die, they might not be able to get their considerable fortune out of the country. The Kublai Khan reluctantly agreed to let them return after they escorted a Mongol princess Kokachin to marry to a Persian prince, Arghun.

Marco did not provide full account of his long journey home. The sea journey took 2 years during which 600 passengers and crewed died. Marco did not give much clue as to what went wrong on the trip, but there are some theories. Some think they may have died from scurvy, cholera or by drowning; others suggest the losses were caused by the hostile natives and pirate attacks. This dreadful sea voyage passed through the South China Sea to Sumatra and the Indian Ocean, and finally docked at Hormuz. There they learned that Arghun had died two years previously so the princess married to his son, prince Ghazan, instead. In Persia they also learned of the death of Kublai Khan. However his protection outlived him, for it was only by showing his golden tablet of authority that they were able to travel safely through the bandit-ridden interior. Marco admitted that the passports of golden tablets were powerful:

"Throughout his dominions the Polos were supplied with horses and provisions and everything needful......I assure you for a fact that on many occasions they were given two hundred horsemen, sometimes more and sometimes less, according to the number needed to escort them and ensure their safe passage from one district to another."

From Trebizond on the Black Sea coast they went by sea, by way of Constantinople, to Venice, arriving home in the winter of 1295.

Although the Polos enjoyed the profits of their enterprise, they longed to return to Venice to enjoy their wealth. They were prevented from returning for a time because Kublai Khan was unwilling to release them from his service. Their chance to return to Europe came in 1292, when they were sent on a mission to Persia and then to Rome. The assignment represented Kublai Khan's way of releasing them from their obligations to him. In Persia they were to arrange a marriage between one of Kublai Khan's regional rulers and a Mongol princess. They were forced to remain in Persia for nearly a year when the man who was supposed to be married died and a new groom had to be found. From the Persian court, the Venetians continued their journey home, arriving in 1295 after an absence of nearly twenty-five years.

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